L425 Biblical Textual Criticism: Introduction

ASSIGNMENT: Read Wurthwein, pages 1-102; Aland, pages 3-279.

The basic principles involved in the textual criticism of both Testaments are the same (though, as is true in every area of Biblical studies, some scholars would argue the opposite). Therefore, I will describe those basic principles before we examine the two parts of the Bible separately.

There are thousands of copies of verses, chapters, and books of the Bible that have been discovered. The entire Bible is well attested in antiquity. There are far more copies of it preserved from ancient times than there are of Homer, Socrates, or Virgil, or any of the Classics. Thus the Bible is the best attested document of the ancient world.

This is extraordinary considering the fact that there were no photocopy machines in antiquity. Each manuscript from antiquity was copied by hand. There were, as a result, inevitable mistakes which crept into the text. Scribes would sometimes leave words out, or add words to clarify a passage. Sometimes they adjusted a text to agree with their theological presuppositions and other times they attempted to copy by memory (which is always hazardous). And still at other times the scribe would misread or mishear a text and thereby write erroneously. These reasons help account for 99% of the variants which are found in the Bible. There are over 5000 documents which represent the New Testament and several representing the Old Testament (we shall have to discuss why this is so later).

Along with the blessing of numerous copies comes the bane of contradiction. No two copies of the Greek New Testament are exactly alike in every word. The Hebrew text is likewise attested in the same manner. The task of Textual Criticism is to recover the most original reading of a verse, passage, or book. The tools which are used by textual critics are well tried; to such an extent that the text of the Bible is over 95% certain. The remaining 5% concerns matters which are predominately orthographic (that is, having to do with spelling variations). The few variants which would affect doctrinal or theological ideas are still puzzling to scholars; but headway is made with each passing day.

The basic thrust of this brief course is to introduce the student to the principles and practice of Biblical textual criticism -- and to demonstrate these principles with examples. These principles apply to both testaments and are:

1. The most important text is the text the author wrote.

2. The texts the authors wrote no longer exist.

3. Only copies of the original text exist.

4. These copies sometimes diverge from one another.

5. The task of the textual critic is to rediscover the original text.

6. For this reason the text critic must know the Biblical Languages.

7. The Textual Critic must also know the languages into which the Bible was first translated.

8. The most important rule of textual criticism is: there can only be one original reading.

9. Variations between texts have a cause.

10. The cause can be either intentional or unintentional.

11. The scribe of a manuscript may make a mistake and give birth to a variant.

12. Or the scribe may give birth to a variant intentionally.

13. Scribal corrections sometime arose because the scribe wanted the manuscript to:

a) make contextual sense

b) make grammatical sense

c) make theological sense

14. Manuscripts must, therefore, be examined so that the most difficult reading outweighs any effort of clarification (for scribes are more likely to simplify and clarify than they are to make a text difficult).

15. And finally, manuscripts must be weighed and not counted (there is no majority rule in textual criticism).

In the following courses we shall examine, first, Old Testament text criticism; and then New Testament text criticism. The student is invited to take their Hebrew Bible in hand, and, as the voice said to Augustine so many years ago: "Tolle, lege!" (Take, read!).